Ampeg VT-22

Ampeg VT-22
Preamp tubes: four 7025 (12AX7 types)
Output tubes: two 5881 (a more-rugged 6L6 type), fixed-bias
Rectifier: solidstate
Controls: Bass Instrument channel: Volume, Treble, Bass; Normal channel: Volume, Treble, Bass; shared: Presence
Output: 50 watts RMS

Insiders from the golden era of the New Jersey amp manufacturer have frequently spoken of Ampeg founder Everett Hull’s unwillingness to embrace rock and roll in the late 1950s and early ’60s. By the late, ’60s, however, the company was ready to admit that rock was here to stay, and that it would have to jump onboard to survive in a fast-evolving market.

Like the massive SVT bass rig of the same year, the V Series guitar amps introduced in ’69 were all about rock and roll – big rock and roll, as blasted in stadiums and arenas on major tours – and they cranked it out in a style no amp had done before or has since. You want “big is beautiful?” This is where it comes from; you just aren’t likely to appreciate quite how beautiful until your ears are bleeding!

The 1972 Ampeg VT-22 is the 2×12″ combo of the V Series, and was the sibling, circuit-wise, of the V-4 head and V-40 4×10″ combo. All used four 7027A output tubes to generate a conservatively rated 120 watts, which can often top 140 watts downhill with a good tailwind… which is to say, when cranked. And though we say this was a rock-intended amp, it was rock as Ampeg intended it – bold, punchy, clear, and ungodly loud. Who could use such an amp today? Perhaps fewer players than back in the day, but, back when it was introduced, it proved to be exactly what plenty of touring pros required, most notably the Rolling Stones. The story sometimes goes that the SVT – the bass-amplifying sibling of the V Series guitar amps – was designed “for” the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour. More accurately, the Stones acquired several prototype SVT bass amps and cabs (and, later, several VT amps) rather urgently while rehearsing for that tour, after their own amps failed at the hands of U.S. voltages. As such, the band served as beta testers for the new designs. In addition to bassist Bill Wyman’s initiation of the now-legendary 300-watt SVT, Keith Richards and new Stones guitarist Mick Taylor also played through the massive bass rigs, but the six-stringers soon evolved to V Series guitar amps, which provided some of the best Stones tones of the ’70s.

Ampeg VT-22

The V Series Ampegs were designed by Dennis Kager, and remain very much within the Ampeg ethos – or, perhaps more accurately, represent an extension and enlargement of that ethos. As a result, this VT-22 is unlike anything before it; it doesn’t come close to copying any of the popular Marshall, Fender, or Vox amps of the era, and instead does its own thing entirely. This individuality is seen in a plethora of oddball tubes employed in the circuit, and some extremely versatile frequency-shaping capabilities in its tone stack and unique sensitivity and voicing switches. The circuit and the tubes used in it evolved slightly through the ’70s, but this 1972 example follows the classic topology. After a couple of gain stages each provided by the two triodes of a 12DW7 in channel 1 and a 12AX7 in channel 2 respectively, the treble and bass pots are sandwiched between two more gain stages provided by a second 12DW7, with the midrange control and related three-way frequency switch brought in after that stage, before a quirky 6K11 tube (a triple triode, meaning it contains three individual amplification stages) used as gain recovery. A 6CG7 tube serves as reverb driver, while the second half of that third 12DW7 drives a 12AU7 phase inverter into the big 7027A output tubes. It’s all laced together across several printed circuit boards, but rugged printed circuit boards with broad tracks and sturdy mountings. For all this, a vintage VT-22 is not a particularly expensive amp on the used market. Not anywhere in the neighborhood of expensive, in fact. The weight, the volume, the odd tubes, and the lack of much of a backstory in the vintage-tone-cred department – its estimable Stones associations aside – all cooperate to keep prices way down.

Out the door, this combo weighed in at 88 pounds, a fact celebrated in the 1972 Ampeg advertising headline that ran “88 Pounds of Undying Devotion.” For owner Craig Randolph (who runs a backline-rental company in Glendale, California), however, “Weight is not an issue when you hear the tone this thing spits out. The amp is very punchy and full-sounding,” Randolph adds. “It cuts through nicely and every note is clear and precise. The cleans are very shimmery and pure-sounding… When the volume is bumped up a bit, the amp starts to get a little hair going and the Stones-type tones come out – classic rock to the bone. As more gain is added, it goes into some serious lead tones that are epic. It always maintains its full, warm tone no matter where the gain is.” Given its pedigree, Randolph’s VT-22 is frequently in demand for studio dates requiring that early-’70s Stones tone, but he has rented it out for everything from rock to reggae.

The VT-22 of this era was equipped either with CTS speakers, square-backed Eminence speakers, or Altec 417Bs as an upgrade. All had a propensity to blow if you hit them hard and long with the VT-22’s full girth, so today they frequently carry replacement speakers. This example sports a pair of Celestion Classic Lead 80s – a good choice both sonically and in terms of power handling. The Altec 417Bs would have been great-sounding speakers, and at 75 watts each, capable of withstanding the VT-22’s bluster for quite some time, but there are plenty of excellent high-powered replacement speakers available today that can eek out a little more sonic righteousness from this amp, when compared to either of its other two original-equipment drivers. The VT-22 had its own rendition of Ampeg’s famously lush reverb, and, while it’s an outright rocker at heart, it’s still a great jazz amp, too, as is Ampeg’s long-standing forte, with rich, full clean tones when you keep the volume reined in, and a stout enough voice to contain the potential boominess of a big-bodied archtop. So, both a bargain and a powerful performer, but you’ll want a strong-backed pal to help you lug it to the gig.

Ampeg VT-22
Amp courtesy of Craig Randolph, photos by Karl Irwin.

This article originally appeared in VG June 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.